Becoming agile and innovative in an evolving nuclear landscape: Changing the industry narrative for a strong future

November 29, 2021, 7:00AMNuclear NewsGleb Tsipursky
Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. (Photo: PG&E)

Last April, Entergy had to close its Indian Point nuclear plant. That’s despite the plant’s being recognized as one of the best-run U.S. nuclear plants. That’s also despite its 20-year license extension process having been nearly completed, with full support from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

This closure was due in large part to opposition by antinuclear environmental groups. These groups also mobilized existing negative public opinion on nuclear energy to get politicians to oppose the plant’s license extension. Another factor is unfair market conditions. Nuclear energy doesn’t get due government support—unlike solar, wind, and hydro—despite delivering clean, zero-emissions energy.

And then, there’s the pressure from environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investors, who have become increasingly powerful in the energy space. In fact, they recently forced their candidates onto Exxon Mobile’s board of directors, against the opposition of Exxon leadership.

These issues may seem familiar to you, because these challenges have led to recent nuclear plant closures, such as NextEra’s Duane Arnold nuclear plant, Entergy’s Indian Point, and many others.

This is happening in America, the home of the nuclear energy industry. Yet we only get 20 percent of our energy from nuclear power. Nuclear has been slowly declining for many years, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that trend to continue unless we make a serious effort to reverse it.


Negative perceptions due to misleading narrative

Much of the industry’s difficulty comes from the misleading narrative by antinuclear, antibusiness environmental activists. They have convinced the public to see nuclear energy in a negative light, on everything from its health impacts to its consequences for the environment.

For example, only 46 percent of the population believes that nuclear power helps limit global warming, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey. That means that 54 percent of the population doesn’t have the right facts about the impact of nuclear on the environment. Unfortunately, the nuclear industry is failing to combat this narrative effectively.

This narrative is the root cause of tangible threats facing the industry. You see these threats every day in the form of license extension challenges, the decrease in plant profitability, the impeded construction of new plants, excessive regulatory burdens, pressure from ESG investors, and disruptive competition from startups.

It doesn’t have to be like this. It really can’t be like this, for our kids and grandkids. This article will help illuminate the dangerous threats facing nuclear energy. It will then provide pragmatic and practical solutions to overcome these challenges to build a strong future for the nuclear industry and for America.

International comparison

To get a broader comparative context, let’s talk about nuclear in France.

France is a large, diverse, and economically developed country, similar to the U.S. in many ways. However, environmentalists in France have much more power than in the U.S.

For example, a 2003 poll on energy policy revealed that 67 percent of the French populace believes that environmental protection represents the single most important energy policy goal. Of course, environmentalists have only become stronger since 2003.

French environmentalists and nuclear

Now, consider a recent story from France of environmentalist protests around the closing of a French nuclear plant. Take a few seconds to close your eyes and imagine what the protests there must be like. You might be picturing protesters with antinuclear signs, chanting the French version of “no nuclear” outside a French nuclear plant. In reality, what happened is the complete opposite. French environmentalists protested outside the office of the French branch of Greenpeace. This happened after Greenpeace pressured the French government to close a French nuclear plant.

Right after the closure, Greenpeace found its office the target of protests from pronuclear environmentalists. That’s right, you read correctly: pronuclear environmentalists. These protesters shouted that less nuclear energy means more coal energy and that nuclear power is better for the climate.

Their message aligns well with French public opinion. A poll taken immediately after the 2011 Fukushima plant accident showed that the French see nuclear energy as safe. At a time when the nuclear industry was suffering from an especially bad image, 62 percent of the people in France—more than enough to win an election—said they trusted the nuclear industry to keep them safe.

In comparison, a survey taken in the U.S. in 2019—long after Fukushima and with no subsequent nuclear accidents—revealed the opposite. Only 47 percent of Americans—more than enough to lose an election—see nuclear plants as safe.

Considering the French people’s strong support for the nuclear industry, it’s no wonder the country gets over 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy. But why are the French doing so much better than we are? Do they have better technology? No! In fact, France got all its nuclear technology from the U.S. in the 1970s.

The answer is not technical; it’s psychological. France has a much better psychological approach to the matter. Its nuclear industry uses techniques that recent behavioral science research has proven effective at controlling the narrative.

For instance, French leaders worked hard to highlight the benefits of nuclear energy through advertising campaigns. They were successful in reinforcing the link between nuclear power and the electricity that makes modern comfort possible.

Heads of nuclear plants also encourage people to take tours to demonstrate how safe nuclear power is. Many millions of French citizens have gone on such tours. It has made them less afraid and more comfortable with nuclear energy.

In addition, all nuclear workers—from plant engineers to managers to staff-level workers—are active advocates. They publicly communicate the benefits of nuclear energy to fellow citizens every day as part of their work. This decreases fear and promotes trust and comfort.

All these key actions add up to the French nuclear industry’s control of the narrative. It’s the reason that today, nuclear energy is an everyday and casual thing in France. It’s not perceived as something scary, mysterious, and unsafe, as so many U.S. citizens feel.

French effect at addressing issue of nuclear waste

An excellent example of this mastery of the narrative is how France coped with the problem of nuclear waste. This is a huge issue for nuclear here in the U.S. but a much smaller problem in France.

Nuclear waste used to be a much bigger problem for the French. It almost derailed the nuclear industry’s growth in the 1980s.

Naturally, given its high nuclear usage, France produces substantial nuclear waste. French nuclear industry leaders with engineering and science backgrounds looked at the problem in technical terms. They saw the cheapest and safest solution as permanent burial. However, when they started digging exploratory holes in rural regions, they encountered massive opposition from the people in those regions. Riots and protests ensued. Eventually, this became a very big challenge for the leaders.

France did not take the road of hunkering down and trying to push through the opposition to permanent underground storage, unlike the sad story of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. France adopted a different path. The government appointed a well-respected politician, Christian Bataille, to figure out a solution.

Bataille talked to the protesters and figured out that scientists and engineers misunderstood the psychology of the rural French. He discovered that the rural people viewed nuclear waste as being caused by wealthy urbanites and dumped on them. They felt that the authorities were abandoning the waste and that they would be stuck with it forever. The rural French saw it as all cost and no benefit.

In turn, Bataille advocated for introducing the notions of research, reversibility, and stockpiling. He argued that spent nuclear fuel should not be buried permanently. Rather, it should be stored in a way that makes it accessible at some time in the future.

In the meantime, scientists investigated ways to use a bigger percentage of the spent fuel. They also researched how to transmute the minute fraction of spent fuel that can’t be used from long-term waste of many thousands of years to short-term waste of a couple of centuries or even decades.

Bataille fought against the objections of technical experts who said it would increase costs. He stressed that his plan was not just a semantic difference. Research, stockpiling, and reversibility involved a commitment: It meant that the authorities would continue to be responsible and would research ways to improve the situation.

Then, he proposed building research labs to explore options for stockpiling waste. He also suggested the idea that one of them would be picked as a long-term site of the research lab and stockpiling center.

Bataille was right. People felt much happier with the idea of a nuclear waste stockpiling center and lab rather than a nuclear waste dump, and several regions applied to host the labs. They did so because they considered it as a source of revenue and good jobs. Now wouldn’t it be nice if U.S. states and municipalities competed to be the place where spent nuclear fuel is researched and stockpiled?

If the French can control the narrative, so can the American nuclear industry. It’s the responsibility of everyone in the U.S. nuclear industry to shift the American narrative on nuclear energy. No matter where you are in the industry—how high or how low, how important or insignificant you consider yourself to be—you need to play your part for the strong and bright future of nuclear in the United States.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail

You might have heard the expression, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That refers to a serious problem for nuclear industry professionals in addressing the challenges of seizing control of the narrative.

When our minds have a certain tool set for solving problems, we ignore other possible tools for solutions, even if they might be a much better fit. That’s a mental blind spot called functional fixedness. It’s revealed by research in behavioral science on dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.

Recent scientific findings show that our minds aren’t wired for the modern environment. They’re wired for the ancient savanna environment. Our ancestors lived in small tribes of 50 to 150 people, relying on tribalism to survive. They also faced life-or-death situations that required a strong fight-or-flight response for survival. Our modern world is very different from that ancestral savanna environment, but we’re still carrying the consequences of these ancestral genes.

The ways our minds mislead us in the modern world, due to our evolutionary background and other aspects of the structure of our brains, are called cognitive biases. My book, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), was provided for all attendees at the 2021 American Nuclear Society’s Utility Working Conference, thanks to the sponsorship of Entergy. It describes these cognitive biases and how to overcome them effectively, including for nuclear industry professionals.

Let’s consider how functional fixedness applies to the nuclear industry. The vast majority of people in the nuclear industry have science and engineering backgrounds and look for technical solutions to problems. However, while it’s certainly important to address technical issues, there are many huge mental blind spots among technical experts about much lower-hanging fruit in the arena of behavioral sciences.

Remember, the soft stuff is often the hardest stuff. It’s often much harder to solve a people problem than a technical problem.

Another key functional fixedness issue comes from the background of many nuclear utility leaders and staff in the nuclear navy. Naval nuclear submarine culture centered on secrecy and silence. The central cultural idea was to “run quiet, run deep.” This culture was carried over to the civilian nuclear utility industry. This is a severe obstacle to appreciating the key role of controlling the narrative. Such functional fixedness needs to be addressed for the future of nuclear.

Should you really care about public opinion of nuclear?

You might feel skeptical about the importance of addressing negative public emotions toward nuclear for your bottom-line profits. That means you might be falling into the empathy gap. This dangerous judgment error describes our tendency to underestimate the strength and importance of other people’s emotions, such as the negative public opinion around the nuclear industry.

Here’s some hard evidence from a 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology research study. The MIT scholars found that a key problem for the profitability of nuclear energy was a result of negative public opinion. The U.S. public supports government subsidies of all energy generation that does not produce carbon emissions, such as solar, wind, and hydro, with only one exception: nuclear power.

As a result, U.S. pro-environmentalist politicians widely support solar, wind, and hydro clean energy subsidies. But there’s little support from such pro-environment politicians for nuclear power. That’s unsurprising, considering that their constituents don’t back nuclear.

Yet, of course, it’s unfair and discriminatory, since nuclear is a zero-emissions fuel. By contrast, hydro produces a surprisingly high amount of carbon dioxide and methane due to vegetation decomposition in the reservoirs, according to a study by the Environmental Defense Fund published in 2019 in Environmental Science and Technology. In fact, over its entire life cycle, from mining uranium to final production of electricity, nuclear has less emissions than wind and solar, not only hydro, according to a 2017 study by Our World In Data.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, nuclear “don't get no respect” for being the lowest-possible emissions source when considered over its life cycle. The MIT researchers found that such unfair and discriminatory treatment undermines the future of nuclear by skewing the market against it.

Negative public opinion on nuclear leads to excessive regulation

A 2020 Carnegie Mellon University study found that the baseline cost of nuclear is lower than coal. However, negative public emotions about nuclear lead to higher costs for nuclear due to excessive regulatory burden. It is much higher than what’s needed for public safety.

Even the worst U.S. nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 had very minimal health effects yet led to very expensive and burdensome regulations. These were driven by public fears rather than good science.

The same study found that closing a nuclear plant caused an average increase of 2 million tons of carbon emissions per year. This is due to the replacement by fossil fuel–burning plants, with much less regulation than nuclear. These replacements are being done despite fossil fuel plants causing much more harm to public health than nuclear ever did.

Excessive and costly nuclear regulations harm public health, which is the central concept in the negative public perception that nuclear can’t seem to shake off. You won’t be surprised that, contrary to popular belief, it’s not nuclear that poses a threat to the lives of thousands of people. Yet what has nuclear done to address this popular belief?

A 2014 University of Washington study showed that air pollution from fossil fuel energy generation kills at least 16,000 people in the continental U.S. per year. That’s a very conservative, lower bound estimate. It also doesn’t consider the full fossil electricity generation life cycle, only the direct impact of emissions.

However, a 2013 NASA study considered the full life cycle of electricity. It found that nuclear energy prevented over 20,000 deaths per year from 2000 to 2009 in the United States. These deaths would have occurred if fossil fuels were used to generate electricity. That means that over the whole lifecycle, fossil fuels killed over 60,000 people per year in that period, since nuclear supplies about 20 percent of all electricity, and fossil fuels supply over 60 percent.

A 2007 article in The Lancet, one of the highest-profile medical journals, compared the deaths from nuclear, gas, and coal electricity generation. It accounted for the full life cycle of each, including accidents, and made very hostile assumptions toward nuclear. For example, it attributed all 534 who died in the Fukushima accident evacuation to nuclear rather than to panicked and irrational fear response. In fact, a 2021 U.N. scientific panel found that the Fukushima accident was unlikely to have any detectable impact on cancer rates.

Even with this worst-case scenario, The Lancet discovered that coal electricity generated 28.67 deaths per terawatt-hour, while gas electricity generated 2.821 deaths per terawatt-hour. In stark contrast, nuclear electricity generated 0.074 deaths per terawatt-hour. And that’s the highest-bound, most hostile assumption.

With non-hostile, friendly assumptions toward solar, hydropower, and wind, they are comparable to but slightly less than nuclear, with wind at .04, solar and hydro at .02. If assumptions were more hostile, they would probably be equal to or higher than nuclear. Below is a visual comparison of safety and emissions by major energy sources.

From 2017 study by Our World In Data

Closing nuclear plants is literally deadly

No wonder nuclear saves so many lives. Even if you use the worst-case, hostile-to-nuclear assumptions and you replace nuclear with the least dangerous fossil fuel, gas, you still kill many dozens of people per plant.

For example, replacing a nuclear plant the size of Indian Point that produces 16 terawatt hours per year with the least dangerous form of fossil fuel, gas, will kill more than 45 people per year. If you use a 50 percent mix of gas and coal, more than 250 people would be killed per year.

Shutting down nuclear plants is literally deadly. Each closure kills anywhere from many dozens to hundreds per year due to replacement by fossil fuel electricity. This means replacing a nuclear plant with fossil fuel–burning plants results in anywhere from many dozens to hundreds of people killed each year. It’s clear that closing nuclear plants is literally deadly dangerous.

Burdensome regulations on nuclear are killing many people right now as you read this article. This should be an outrage!

These problems are caused by negative public emotions on nuclear. They are all solvable, and it’s your job to solve them using behavioral science–based strategies.

Reframing to shift public opinion

Imagine there are two frozen yogurts you will see as possible desserts for lunch this afternoon. One says it’s 20 percent fat, while the other says it’s 80 percent fat-free. Which one do you think is better?

The two yogurts are actually the same, but framing makes one seem better. That’s because our views are greatly influenced by how issues are framed.

It can be surprisingly easy to shift people’s opinions and perceptions by how issues are framed. Behavioral scientists call this mental blind spot the framing effect. You can use it to help seize control of the narrative.

The question now is, can we reframe nuclear energy in the eyes of the public from mysterious and scary to a pro-environment source of energy that is everyday, casual, and safe, as it is in France? There’s no doubt in my mind that the answer is yes.

Now, the temptation for those with technical backgrounds is to engineer their way to safety. Yet that’s an example of functional fixedness. You’re not shooting at the right target.

In reality, nuclear is the safest industry in the world. You just need to address perceptions of safety, not reality, using behavioral science–based strategies. Right now, the public sees nuclear as the most dangerous way to make electricity. Yet we know that closing nuclear plants is deadly dangerous and leads to dozens and dozens of people killed per year.

You can easily use this hard data on resulting deaths to make the case to the public and to officials that by failing to support nuclear plants, they are killing their neighbors and friends. Every nuclear plant closed—like Indian Point—results in at least 45 deaths in the best-case scenario of replacement by gas-generated power, and many more if coal, oil, or biomass is part of the replacement.

That’s a powerful reframing! Imagine a politician who is failing to support funding or license extension for a nuclear plant in their community, like what happened with Indian Point in New York. Now, they will know that when they’re up for reelection, their opponent will run an attack ad saying, “If my opponent is reelected, he will kill over 45 people per year by failing to oppose the closing of our nuclear plants.” What kind of politician wants that?

Encourage advocacy by all nuclear workers

You need advocacy by nuclear workers at all levels. When I talk to nuclear industry marketing and communication executives, they tell me that the burden of shaping the narrative falls on them and their teams. That is a serious problem for the U.S. nuclear industry.

Seizing the narrative needs to be an effort for the whole industry. Why? It’s because engineers and managers have much more authentic credibility for direct nuclear experience than marketing and communications staff. That’s why engineers and managers need to drive seizing the narrative.

My experience training technical experts to use behavioral science–based techniques and to communicate effectively to the broad public shows that it can be done. They might be uncomfortable initially due to many of them being introverted. But once they overcome the discomfort, with appropriate coaching and training, many will excel at advocacy.

However, coaching them toward advocacy requires incentives. My experience consulting for companies on this topic and trying to get engineers and managers to be advocates revealed that incentives shouldn’t be about money.

You need to focus on incentives based on status and career growth. Status and peer reputation involve things like highlighting effective communication in company newsletters when you’re awarding employees of the month. Career growth means you integrate effective communication into performance evaluations and promotion up the career ladder.

That’s how you use behavioral science–based motivators for incentivizing engineers and scientists to be effective communicators. It’s also the reason why Entergy and other forward-looking nuclear companies recently started to deploy their engineers and managers to shape the narrative, giving them effective coaching, training, and incentives to do so.

So now, Entergy engineers and managers are doing media interviews and presenting talks for schools, colleges, and community groups. They are also writing blogs and sending letters to the editor.

As part of this advocacy, the nuclear industry must come together to fund effective public persuasion ad campaigns, as they do in France. Why do I see commercials for renewables, but not nuclear? Even coal and gas have advertising campaigns.

If you Google “pronuclear advertising,” you’ll see that the top result is from 2013! That’s simply unacceptable.

If the French nuclear industry can do this advocacy well, so can we. France learned from America about nuclear technology. We can learn from France about nuclear psychology.

Framing nuclear energy as best path to a clean and safe energy future

Another reframing in nuclear psychology needs to position nuclear as the best path to a carbon-free, safe future.

Of course, we know from research that for the entire life cycle of nuclear, it is the cleanest source of energy. It’s even cleaner than wind and solar, and much cleaner than hydro. Moreover, nuclear has a much lower impact on biodiversity, due to the land usage requirements of wind, solar, and hydro, as well as the extensive mining needed for the rare earth metals involved in wind and solar. So, it’s tempting to argue against wind, solar, and hydro when you’re making the case for nuclear power.

Don’t do it! Position nuclear as the big brother of solar and wind, in alliance against coal and gas. The long-term vision of nuclear power should be as the reliable source of energy to complement the variable power from solar and wind, with nuclear occupying a minimal footprint compared to other clean energy sources. It’s a big tent, with the America of the future using a combination of these clean energy sources, depending on what makes sense for each region.

Recognize that nuclear’s real battle is with gas and coal. Gas and coal rub their hands together and jump up and down in glee anytime nuclear plants are shut down, such as when three gas plants were built to replace Indian Point. Indeed, when new nuclear plants are built, they replace fossil fuels, such as the coal-generated electricity slated to be replaced with a planned new nuclear facility in Wyoming. Similarly, wind and solar battle against fossil fuels. Their recent increase comes at the expense of fossil fuel–generated electricity.

The environmental benefit of nuclear has support across political divides. Recently, a third of all House Republicans launched the Conservative Climate Caucus. Its head, Rep. John Curtis (R., Utah), gave an interview. When he was asked about ideas for solving climate change, he gave only one specific policy: “We can do nuclear at large scale and without a carbon footprint.”

In order to do this reframing, you need to find and support pronuclear environmentalists and help give them a bigger megaphone. You need to learn how to speak the language of environmentalism. If one-third of House Republicans can learn to do it despite our political polarization, so can all of you.

It’s not only on the climate change front that nuclear is naturally aligned with solar, wind, and hydro. It’s also on the public safety front. Fossil fuels, even the least deadly, kill more than an order of magnitude more people over their life cycle than nuclear, solar, wind, or hydro. Especially with the pandemic bringing public health to the center of attention, this is a key point.

Traditionally, nuclear advocacy focuses on the reliability of nuclear energy and the good jobs it brings. Well, guess what. That gets at only the more conservative half of the population. They tend to be already supportive of nuclear: They’re the constituents who elect people like Rep. Curtis.

If you want to reach the other half of the population who are skeptical of nuclear energy, you need to speak their language and appeal to their values. They value public health. They value the environment. They often tend to be somewhat less concerned with pragmatic matters like reliability and jobs and more concerned with social justice. They’re the ones you need to reach in order to address the unfair market conditions.

To do so, you need to take the gloves off with coal and gas. Antibusiness environmentalists have deluded much of the population with the myth that nuclear power will be replaced by solar and wind. You need to show people across the political divide the reality of the choice we’re facing.

Anytime that there’s a debate about whether to support a nuclear plant’s continued existence, it’s either nuclear or it’s gas and coal. It’s either good public health and a clean environment, or dozens or hundreds of people killed per year and escalating climate change.

For many of you, it won’t be easy and comfortable. That’s why people say the soft stuff is often the hardest stuff.

Don’t discount the future

We need to avoid discounting the future. This is tempting because of hyperbolic discounting, another mental blind spot of our minds. We overemphasize short-term priorities even if long-term ones might be much more important. We need to shift from a short-term orientation to long-term thinking.

Avoid the temptation to take shortcuts like influencing officials rather than shifting public opinion. Keep in mind that lobbying officials instead of swaying the public can get you short-term gains, but this often backfires and hurts nuclear.

Consider a particularly egregious example from my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Two years ago, state lawmakers passed a $1.3 billion subsidy to save two nuclear plants. However, new information came to light about some shady payments to Ohio lawmakers by the company that ran the plants. This led to federal indictments of lawmakers and resignations of top executives at the nuclear company. The company had to pay a huge fine, and the subsidy was repealed. The public image of nuclear was badly damaged.

Now there’s no way that even the best nuclear company will get a subsidy in Ohio for the next few years. That’s a very disappointing outcome for me and all others who support a bright future for nuclear.

That was an extreme and egregious example, but it represents a broader tendency. Way too much of the nuclear industry’s efforts are about lobbying officials. It doesn’t focus nearly enough on swaying the public.

Focusing on seizing control of the narrative is the key to your long-term success. Other issues are related to this. As mentioned earlier, if you seize control of the narrative, you can decrease your costly regulatory burden and address unfair market conditions.

Take a closer look at environment, social, and governance investors

Let’s talk about another benefit of seizing control of the narrative—addressing risk from ESG investors. It’s a serious issue in the nuclear industry and is causing a lot of pressure that can no longer be ignored.

These increasingly powerful investors tend to be skeptical of nuclear and say that negative public emotions are the biggest obstacle to the profitability of nuclear. They also don’t view nuclear as doing nearly enough to address negative public sentiment.

Another major reason for ESG investor concern is that the nuclear industry isn’t beating the environmentalist drum. In fact, the nuclear industry has been improving the environment all along. It just hasn’t been talking up its efforts. It’s no wonder ESG investors feel skeptical of nuclear. Keeping silent on these efforts makes it seem like nuclear doesn’t align with ESG pro-environmental values.

However, ESG investors are starting to embrace nuclear startups such as TerraPower, which is backed by Bill Gates, Terrestrial Energy, which is backed by the Research Projects Agency–Energy, the Department of Energy’s R&D arm, and many others.

These startups use fourth-generation technology such as molten salt reactors, recycle nuclear waste and use it as fuel, and deploy lower-cost SMRs. Perhaps most important, startup leaders position themselves as “green nuclear” by talking up their environmental benefits.

ESG investors like this positioning. Because of this stance, they are increasingly willing to invest in startups rather than in traditional nuclear.

The growth of nuclear startups

The support ESG investors give to startups reveals one of the least appreciated yet biggest risks to traditional nuclear: the risk of competition by maturing nuclear startups. Why do you think billionaires like Bill Gates are investing hundreds of millions in nuclear? It’s because they see an opportunity for major disruption.

Startups want to create a new category of “green nuclear” and capture the lucrative profits that come from defining and dominating any new category.

Startup Disruption Strategy 101 goes like this:

Step 1: Create a new category

Step 2: Dominate it

Step 3: Profit

Think it can’t happen to you? Talk to Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler about the rise of Tesla. Tesla was founded less than 20 years ago. It took advantage of growing support for environmentalism to create a new category of an all-electric “green car.” Big Auto failed to notice the importance of this market segment, allowing Tesla to dominate the “green car” category. Tesla was able to capture support from ESG investors.

Do you know Tesla’s market cap? It’s over $650 billion, just from the “green car” category. This is despite Tesla’s having less than 2 percent of the market share of all U.S. cars. Do you know the market cap of Ford, GM, and Chrysler? They have a market share of 40 percent. Combined, their market cap is less than $200 billion. Therefore, Tesla can acquire all of them many times over.

Who will be the Tesla of the nuclear industry, and who will be the Ford?

Bill Gates and the nuclear narrative war

Consider that Gates and other startup leaders are often quoted in the media on the environmental and safety benefits of their new “green nuclear.” They understand the crucial role of controlling the narrative.

What if Gates and other startup leaders succeed in convincing the public that the new “green nuclear” is safe, clean, and pro-environmental but traditional nuclear is not? How much would that cost you?

For example, here’s another quote from Rep. John Curtis, the head of the recently launched Conservative Climate Caucus: “I think you'll hear us talk about reimagining nuclear, and that doesn't mean that we have to accept nuclear as it is today. The next-generation nuclear—and making it safer—is very, very important.”

This quote makes it seem that current nuclear power is unacceptable and not safe. That fits well with the talking points of Bill Gates, but it doesn’t fit well the need to protect existing nuclear.

You can’t let Gates win the narrative war. That’s why you need to convince the public that traditional nuclear is the true green and safe nuclear.

Strategic pivot

You need to pivot your strategy on physical infrastructure to match your new narrative. Otherwise, you will be accused of greenwashing and hypocrisy. This strategic pivot involves three parts.

Part 1: Protect existing nuclear plants

The first part is for the short-term future. Focus on protecting existing traditional nuclear plants and those under construction. Fight for license extensions, since existing nuclear plants can operate for many more decades with updated equipment.

Then, work with federal, state, and local governments to keep existing plants open. Exelon and others have been working on this for many years. You should do the same as well.

Finally, create fair market conditions for clean nuclear electricity. This means having a market where regulations are based on rational evaluations of danger to public health, rather than irrationally stoked fears. It’s where subsidies are provided to ALL clean energy and/or fossil fuel electricity paying a carbon tax.

This is a great opportunity for a clean energy standard, which should be adopted widely. It’s even being debated as a potential part of a new infrastructure bill. The question is, why isn’t the nuclear industry sponsoring public outreach by industry leaders and advertising campaigns for this standard in the districts of key lawmakers?

Part 2: Pursue SMRs

The second part of the strategic pivot is to strengthen your long-term future. You need to focus on developing advanced SMRs and not more traditional plants.

One of the biggest benefits of fourth-generation technology is the ability to minimize nuclear waste by recycling spent fuel. Reducing waste will address one of the biggest concerns with nuclear.

Next, shift to a modular design. Since they are made in a factory and are deployed on-site, you will have less concerns over cost overruns. Lower cost is the major selling point used by Gates and other startup leaders.

You need to pursue SMRs aggressively so you can make the same claims authentically.

Lastly, it’s important to understand that while existing plants are your reality, SMRs are your future legacy. We can all recognize that the large-scale deployment of SMRs is over a decade away.

Part 3: Invest in startups

The third part of the strategic pivot is to invest in startups. By doing so and getting an inside view, you will learn from the experience of startups, including their effective public communication and their technological innovations. You’ll also develop partnerships that can help you shape the narrative and improve your technology. Finally, you can also evaluate which potential competitors to acquire to prevent them from dominating the “green nuclear” category and facilitate yourself doing so.

These methods come from Big Tech strategies to address the threat of tech startups. They proved effective when I worked with a Big Pharma company that made a similar pivot. I helped it adopt these strategies to deal with the threat of biotech startups successfully.

If traditional Big Pharma can learn to do it from Big Tech, so can you. Don’t follow the complacency of Big Auto.

Conclusion

A top nuclear executive told me that the nuclear industry is like a huge cruise ship trying to turn to miss the big iceberg of the nuclear twilight. Unfortunately, the industry’s efforts to turn the cruise ship right now seem to be on cruise control. It’s obvious that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and soon.

The future of nuclear power is strong and bright if you avoid complacency and choose to be masters of your destiny. Nuclear needs to position itself as the big brother of solar and wind if you want to grow into the biggest source of electricity in America.

You think it can’t be done? Remember the example of France. What you need to do is take the wheel. Go full steam ahead to a “green nuclear” future by seizing control of the narrative and using nuclear psychology.

What gives me hope is seeing smart money like Bill Gates going all-in on nuclear. He sees the true potential of nuclear and wants to grab the profits and glory for himself. You can’t let him do that.

To position nuclear for a strong future, everyone in the U.S. nuclear industry should advocate for its growth and continued existence. This means seizing control of the narrative by speaking the language of environmentalism, talking about protecting public health, and appealing to ESG investors.

You should pivot your strategy accordingly to protect existing nuclear plants, focus on developing SMRs, and invest in startups.

You also need to escape the complacency of cruise control by not ignoring the threats outlined in this article. Take advantage of the solutions proposed if you want to avoid the iceberg of the nuclear twilight.

If you do so, you’ll become agile and innovative for a strong future for nuclear. Now go out there and seize your destiny!


Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally renowned thought leader in future-proofing and cognitive bias risk management. He serves as the CEO of the consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing has been translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, and other languages. He was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in prominent venues. These include Fortune, USA Today, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Time, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, including seven years as a professor at Ohio State University. You can contact him by email.


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